Austin Craft Brewers vs COVID-19: Vista Brewing and Hops & Grain
How local breweries are responding to the pandemic (Part 2)
By Eric Puga,
4:13PM, Tue. Mar. 31, 2020
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I haven’t felt this great about the communal spirit since the Franklin Barbecue Line Cam. This is community service at its best, and it’s all because
So here we are at the beginning of April, and we've nearly made it one month into this very strange, surreal social experiment with headspaces ranging from, “yeah, this is concerning, I guess, can I get another IPA?” at the start of March, to “Oh My God It’s Dangerous Just to Fucking Breathe” by then end of it. It’s hard to process how we got here and whether things will ever really go back to the way we left it. I thought about taking my chances picking up a few supplies at H-E-B the other day and just the idea of risking it all for a pillowcase size of Chili Fritos got me shook. I ultimately decided against it, even though, damn, Chili Fritos are maybe worth it, but guess what, friends, there are safer ways to catch those flavor fetishes. A great example would be all that freshly brewed beer out there, staying cold and delicious, waiting for its person to order it up into a crowler directly from the local brewhouse. That’s peak Curbside-and-Distancing!
In Part 2 of Austin Craft Brewers vs. COVID 19 (read Part 1 here), the Chronicle communicated with Kent and Karen Killough, founders of Vista Brewing in nearby Driftwood (#13 on our 2019 Brewery Power Rankings), as well as Josh Hare, the Texas Craft Brewers Guild Board Chair and Founder of Hops & Grain (#14 on the 2019 Power Rankings) to discuss how their breweries have been impacted by this narc-ass virus. Take a look.
In the two short years since Vista debuted on the local beer scene, they’ve made it clear that they’re a gifted, ambitious, contemporary brewery with old world ideas. Covering 21-acres of grade-A hill country, the brewery features an onsite organic farm, an orchard, an apiary, and strollable trails, tailored for wandering off with your pint of European-style lagers and ales. Owners Kent and Karen Killough have kept their trails open as a community service for those seeking respite from self-captivity and graciously responded to our eagerness to see how things are going out on the farm via email.
The Killoughs on how their beer is moving over one week into the taproom shutdown:
“Even though it is steady and positive, we aren’t making enough revenue from to-go business to cover even half of our costs. Our hope is that the silver lining from this chaos will be that more of the community starts to see their local brewery as their first stop for their regular supplies (at least of the bubbly fermented type). We are also hopeful that brewpubs will be allowed to deliver to their community, like wineries and other alcohol retailers already do. Deliveries would help bridge the income gap during the crisis, and would help brewpubs rebound faster from the stronger and broader relationships we would be able to establish. It makes us very proud that the Central Texas community has responded so positively in such an unprecedented time of uncertainty. We are open for to-go using online ordering seven days a week, and guests have really enjoyed walking our grounds and getting outdoors.”
The Killoughs on the production model Vista is moving to in light of taproom/biergarten shutdown:
“Production at Vista has not changed much during this crisis. We are very small, and our production is designed to supply the core of our business: draft beer. [Our beer sales are ] 90% in our beer garden. We do [package] a portion of our wine barrel-aged beers, most of which are sold to our Barrel Club (similar to a wine club with quarterly pickups of exclusive beers). We have always sold a lot of crowlers and growlers, filled using strict sanitation procedures, [and] we have several new releases coming in the next few weeks, including a collaboration with Funkwerks that we did for the (now cancelled) Craft Brewers Conference [in San Antonio]. [It’s] a cherry cuvee wine barrel aged ale. [Also], Karen’s favorite beer of the year, Zwickeled Pink dry-hopped pilsner, made in collaboration with Pink Boots Society.”
“We launched the “Vista Farm Box” this week, providing a weekly subscription of fresh vegetables from the Vista farm, and fresh meat and eggs from our neighboring farm partners, and hopefully we’ll be able to deliver or ship to your front door soon enough.”
The Killoughs on the volume of to-go business it would take to keep Vista viable for the indefinite future:
“Vista is a very young, small business (we’ve postponed our Second Anniversary Party [originally] scheduled for April 4), so awareness is key right now. We have been very fortunate to have connected with so much of our community as a Hill Country place to host a celebration or spend an afternoon, but we need folks to realize now that they can still come by and pick up a piece of that Hill Country experience to savor while we all wait for this virus to subside. One [peculiarity] that we’ve [noticed] is that most of our guests aren’t ‘stocking up’; they are buying for the next two or three days and then looking forward to the next escape to Vista to restock. It will take all Central Texans making a conscious decision to regularly support all of our local breweries and restaurants.”
The Killoughs on what is at stake for Vista, (and small breweries overall) given an indefinite taproom halt:
“If the closure of bars and restaurants extends for more than a few weeks, it is going to be a real problem for small breweries who have almost all of their inventory locked up in draft. The cost of mobile canning is so high, it isn’t really feasible to move draft products into cans if you don’t already have a wholesale pipeline developed. The ability for brewpubs to deliver directly to consumers would be a major lifeline for brewpubs who are caught in the purgatory of having a retail business model, but not able to open their taprooms to protect the public health.”
“We plan to continue to spread a message of positivity and support for our community as best as we can. Our mission at Vista has always been to positively influence the way our guests live their lives [and] that mission is critical now, more than ever.”
Parting thoughts to the people of Austin regarding Vista and other small, independent breweries?
“Readers can order Vista beer, plus wine, cider, and Vista merchandise online and schedule pickup seven days a week. Hopefully, it won’t be long before they will be able to order beer from Vista delivered directly to their home – please sign up on our email list to be the first in line for the service when it is available – and for those virtual beer releases!”
Beer-to-Go Hours: 3-7pm, Daily; Beer, Wine, Cider, and Merch Website: www.vistabrewingtx.com
Hops & Grain
The little brewery at the very end of 6th street has become a robust and ubiquitous brand on the shelves of Austin’s beer outlets, offering one of the city’s best mainstay lineups in The One They Call Zoe and funday treat, River Beer. But Hops & Grain also keeps dazzling with a large tapwall of small batch bonuses. Hare spoke to the Chronicle about their retort to the sudden shift in operations.
Hare on on how their beer is moving over one week into the taproom shutdown:
“We are close to a 50-50 packaged [versus] taproom sales brewery, and the taproom in Austin is impactful. We operate on single-digit to low-double-digit margins when things are going well, so when half of that goes away it's hard. 95% of our sales are taproom sales in Austin (Hops & Grain San Marcos very recently shuttered permanently unrelated to COVID-19) and all of that is gone. [Hops & Grain is at] about 60% of our typical revenue now. As a brewery, [Hops & Grain] thrives on social interaction, so not only is [the shutdown] a total gut punch [to sales], but to socialization. Half of my week is a routine, everyone one I know comes through the taproom and I thrive on that. I love hanging out in the taproom and seeing our regulars come through and have a beer, and now they have to walk to a table outside to get their beer. I worry about the mental health of the industry at large; the psychological impact. But I can’t thank everyone enough who is still coming here to buy our beer.”
Hare on the production model Hops & Grain is moving to in light of taproom shutdown:
“We want to be prepared with kegs when the ban is lifted, so we also don’t want to go too far off schedule. From a production standpoint, it’s day-to-day. All 16 taps in Austin are full and none of them are mainstay beers. Next week, we’ll brew smaller batches of year round stuff too, and we’ll do 16oz cans of 4-packs and crowlers. Fuck it, all rules are off. (At long last! Canned Alt-eration returns!)
Hare on the volume of to-go business it would take to keep Hops & Grain viable for the indefinite future:
“We had to let go of the majority of our staff, so that they would have the ability to access unemployment. Right now it's me and our taproom manager who has been running Austin. I'm doing stuff in the back [and our] production staff is on standby. The sales in Austin can hold us up for a little while, and our landlords [in Austin and San Marcos] have been really cool. We’ve lucked out [that they have] been understanding. The brand can survive on what we’re doing right now until about June but after that it’ll get dicey.”
Hare on what is at stake for Hops & Grain, (and small breweries overall) given an indefinite taproom halt:
“The entire brewing landscape will be different on the other side of this pandemic. If [breweries] can’t service their debt, then people will just want to get out from under it. There’s gonna be a number of Chapter 11 cases, and at this point it's almost the best strategic move to put their creditors at bay. A bunch of [breweries who are] not carrying debt will just go away and let others fill those spaces. But what worries me the most, is after this, [customers] will realize how much they want things brought to them [via delivery services] and now suddenly there will be 20 new apps offering home delivery. The value of interaction and experience [in a bar or taproom] might be forgotten completely.”
Parting thoughts to the people of Austin regarding Hope & Grain and other small, independent breweries?
”On the Brewers Guild side, we’ve been lobbying hard to amplify our message about what [small, independent breweries] need (direct delivery of beer to customers instate and out-of-state), but what we’re learning is that so much of what the TABC does is by statute, so the only person who can change anything is the governor. At this point they’re justly concerned with saving people's lives and getting people tested, so we might have missed out on that chance when Governor Abbott already addressed bars being able to deliver to homes. Of course we want the state to prioritize what is truly important because they’re overwhelmed. We sent over the signatures [from the Texas Brewers Guild online petition], but we’re not holding out a whole lot of hope. We want to softly [inform him], ‘Hey this would really benefit small business in Texas,’ but we don’t want to hammer.'”
“From the Hops & Grain side, I just want to make sure everyone knows that breweries are still considered an essential business, and to also remember taprooms. Remember how much fun we had just a few weeks back? This will be a weird concern of mine; so keep those taprooms in the back of your mind as we come out of this.”
Beer-to-Go Hours: 12-6pm, Wed. - Sun.; Beer, Wine, Cider, and Merch Website: www.shop.hopsandgrain.com/